Knives Out single, 2001
Are b-sides even a thing anymore? I know, of course, that there will always be songs artists choose not to release on a grand scale, or even at all — there will always be throwaways. But as the traditional album format declines in relevance and songs matter only at face value — either $.99 or “free” to stream, and immediate enough to warrant repeat listens or forgotten on first pass — the playing field is leveled for both old and new material. A song becomes just a song, of interest to as many as want to hear it, with only the artist’s wishes providing context. In the new listening economy, b-sides mean as much as singles, as much as track 10 or 12 or 200, as much as radio. The songs either exist by virtue of being revealed or they don’t, and their commercial/critical fortunes rise and fall alongside all other noise. Radiohead’s two decades of b-sides outline a fascinating parallel history of the band — this is a group whose reputation was made in and because of the traditional album era, which itself enabled the b-side model as much as the singles format before it. Anything that didn’t make the cut on OK Computer or Kid A or Amnesiac was certainly intended by the band to be experienced apart from those albums. But today, an interested fan can listen back to those singles and EP’s featuring non-album material … and it’s all just Radiohead. And B-side Radiohead strikes me in general as less conservative, a little less measured, more willing to engage in traditional rock-band theatrics than the willfully obscured “final cuts” marked for canon. Witness “Cuttooth,” a piano-driven rocker that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Coldplay record from the same era were it not for its more adventurous production. I can scarcely imagine Thom Yorke & Co. sanctioning this track for The Bends, much less Amnesiac, their most experimental record. And of course they didn’t, they picked it for the scrap-heap, but here we are 13 years later and sure enough, it’s a Radiohead song. As a fan, I like it about as much as anything else they could’ve chosen to put on an album. The future audience may be unaware there was ever a distinction.